Japanese History

Martial Arts Enlightenment: Why the Samurai Warriors Practiced Zen, Part 2

Before you dig into this post, would you like to read Part 1? If so, go here now.

Regardless of specifics, from the time of the first Kamakura shogun, Zen Buddhism had found its foothold in ancient Japan, and its impact was imminent. One key point that Winston L. King brought up (see Bibliography) was that Zen monks did not enter into politics to advance in the imperial court. He gave three rather lengthy reasons for this lack of political striving:

Zen, by nature, was anti-institutional; its timing was such that it was not introduced during a warring period; and its monks already held top advisory positions in the shogun’s councils, so there was no need for further political striving. (31)

As stated above, the move to Kamakura put Zen monks in a position of close confidence with the military leaders of the day. Even though this relationship had humble beginnings and was probably mostly secular in nature (record keeping, political advising, etc.), it grew quickly as the employers of those monks realized there was more to be gained from Zen’s religious aspects than just sutra study and recitation.

The warrior class was quick to see the potential for “special spiritual and psychological strength from Zen, which contributed to the strength of character, firmness of will and imperviousness to suffering on which they prided themselves.” (Reischauer 1989, 53)

With similar prized characteristics as a goal of sorts, Zen meditation and martial arts training naturally complemented each other. The spiritual path of Zen was one that the samurai found most appealing. Truth, in the Zen tradition, was to be found within the deepest core of one’s visceral being, not in the intellect. This put the truth well within the range of the samurai’s awareness and emotional compatibility. (King 1993, 163)

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Zen offered the samurai what no amount of physical training or knowledge of military strategy could. The purpose of Zen meditation was to open this martial training to the subconscious, instinctive forces of his being that governed action without thought. (King 1993, 166) The techniques of swordsmanship were not inherently flawed, but the factor that was most open to imperfections was the mind of the practitioner. Zen offered what is called mushin, or no-mind.

Taisen Deshimaru likened mushin to “the body thinking.” (1991, 78) In D.T. Suzuki’s Zen and Japanese Culture, it is described thus: “[It is] going beyond the dualism of all forms of life and death, good and evil, being and non-being. … Hereby he becomes a kind of automation, so to speak, as far as his own consciousness is concerned.” (94)

Takuan Soho wrote about mushin in three letters to Yagyu Munenori, head of the Yagyu Shinkage school of swordsmanship. (King 1993, 167) A passage reads as follows:

“Mugaku meant that in wielding the sword, in the infinitesimal time it takes lightning to strike, there is neither mind nor thought. For the striking, there is no mind. For myself, who is about to be struck, there is no mind. The attacker is emptiness. His sword is emptiness. I, who am about to be struck, am emptiness. … Completely forget about the mind and you will do all things well.” (37)

To understand this is to understand the heart of Zen. Some might call this having a satori (realization of a profound truth). Zen, having in its nature a focus on the non-rational mind, is difficult to explain by merely defining theses. The best way to understand Zen thought is by illustration. One of the best illustrations of how one might benefit from Zen training comes from Suzuki’s Zen and Japanese Culture:

“He who deliberates and moves his brush intent on making a picture, misses to a still greater extent the art of painting. Draw bamboo for 10 years, become a bamboo, then forget all about bamboo when you are drawing. In possession of an infallible technique, the individual places himself at the mercy of inspiration.

“To become a bamboo and to forget that you are one with it while drawing it — this is the Zen of the bamboo, this is the moving with the rhythmic movement of the spirit which resides in the bamboo as well as in the artist himself. What is now required of him is to have a firm hold on the spirit and yet not to be conscious of the fact.” (31)

This passage entails the entire essence of Zen and the martial arts. Through zazen, or seated meditation, one comes to know mushin. With the prerequisite of swordsmanship training, the practitioner then must forget that he has this library of knowledge and …

Martial Arts Enlightenment: Why the Samurai Warriors Practiced Zen, Part 1

People today may find it unusual to think of religious philosophy as the backbone of military training, yet that’s just what we find when we examine the military class of early Japan. Westerners are often confused by the term “religious philosophy” because in the West, those two subjects are distinct schools of thought. Until recently in Japan, however, there was no separation: They were connected in the sense that religion was philosophy acted out as a way of living.

One of the more popular Eastern religions, Zen, concentrates on living life to the utmost in the here and now, as opposed to focusing on the afterlife. If Zen practitioners live in this very moment, all the rest — whatever else that may entail — will fall into place naturally. That includes the main concern of the samurai warriors: proper action in the midst of deadly combat.

Two major turning points affected the development of the samurai. The first was the Gempei War (1180-1185), which led to the rise of the official warrior class. The roots of this war began in the Heian period (794-1185), when the prominent imperial family names were the be-all and end-all of social status, as well as the key to the imperial court. The Fujiwara lineage was becoming too complicated and far-reaching for it to retain its prestigious air.

Thus, “excess members of the imperial line were cut off from it and given the family names of Minamoto (also known as Genji) or Taira (also called Heiki).” (Reischauer 1989, 40) These families then migrated to other areas of Japan and used their imperial heritage to form a new aristocracy over the descendants of the old provincial uji (small counties that were unified by the worship of the same god, usually an ancestor). (Reischauer 1989, 40)

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As these families established that new form of provincial aristocracy, the hunger for court positions remained as strong as ever. Beginning in the late 11th century and continuing until 1185, the clans of Minamoto and Taira fought desperately to gain a foothold in the imperial line.

Soon enough, a major battle ensued — and nearly wiped out the Minamoto clan except for two sons of a general named Yoshitomo: Yoritomo and Yoshitsune.

Reischauer wrote, “Yoritomo extended his control over the Kanto area, and his younger brother Yoshitsune then seized the capital area for him and pursued the Taira down the Inland Sea to its western end, where he finally annihilated them in 1185 at Dan-no-ura in a naval battle.” (1989, 43) That conflict became known as the Gempei War. In recognition of the Minamoto clan, in 1192 the emperor declared Yoritomo to be the realm’s shogun, thus beginning the reign of the warrior class. (King 1993, 44) That happened one year after the return of Eisai, founder of Japan’s first definitive Zen sect.

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The second important incident that contributed to the development of the samurai was the establishment of the reverence for the sword. Nearly a century after the battle at Dan-no-ura, Japan was threatened by an outside entity — the Mongols, who had already conquered China, Korea and parts of Europe. When the Mongols turned their attention to Japan, they conveyed their demands to the Japanese court in 1266. (Reischauer 1989, 47) Japan refused, and Mongol forces were dispatched for Kyushu. Had it not been for bad weather — which made the Mongols retreat — the Japanese surely would have lost to the Mongols’ superior archers.

A second Mongol attack was launched in 1281 with some 140,000 men, yet the invaders were held offshore by Japan’s coastal fortresses. (Reischauer 1989, 48) That gave the Japanese the upper hand by enabling them to use smaller boats to board the Mongol junks and fight at close range, thus demonstrating the superiority of the Japanese blade.

Following several such attacks by the Japanese, a typhoon — known as a kamikaze, or “divine wind” — destroyed the Mongol army. From this battle onward, the Japanese warrior class regarded the sword as the weapon of choice. Because great strength of will and concentration, as opposed to just technical skill, are needed to succeed in lightning-fast blade duels, the samurai turned to Zen.

Bodhidharma

Zen began in India. Around 440 to 520, a priest named Bodhidharma taught that one could attain nirvana through meditation, not just through rigorous study of the sutra

Learn the Lesson of Compassion From Japanese Swordsman Miyamoto Musashi

Some legends are so wonderful you want them to be true. The legend of bo specialist Muso Gonnosuke’s two meetings with Miyamoto Musashi is a good example. As a young man, Muso wandered around Japan, challenging other martial artists to duels — both to make a name for himself and to perfect his art. Despite the risk of serious injury or worse, he bested a number of skilled warriors with his staff.

While visiting the capital city of Edo (Tokyo), Muso found Musashi, a renowned swordsman whose reputation was rapidly growing. Musashi was an unconventional fighter whose training in a formal ryu was rudimentary, but he used cunning, strategy and bravado to overcome his opponents. Indeed, in his duel with Muso, Musashi didn’t use a steel sword or even a wooden training weapon. Instead, he employed a tree limb to thoroughly and convincingly defeat his opponent — but he spared Muso’s life.

Muso retreated to a mountaintop in Kyushu, where he trained furiously and meditated on his art and his loss. He was eventually rewarded with what he took to be a divine vision that compelled him to shorten his 6-foot-long staff. The modification enabled him to manipulate the weapon like a sword and a spear while retaining its use as a pole arm.

Once again, he sought out Musashi and requested a rematch. Musashi obliged. This time, however, Muso was able to defeat his opponent. But just as Musashi had spared his life in their initial encounter, Muso let Musashi live, handing him — if the story is true — his only defeat.

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More than four centuries later, Muso’s descendants still practice the stick techniques he devised, which constitute part of the curriculum of shindo muso ryu, or jojutsu (art of the stick). Within the kata of the school are a range of lethal methods, as well as a good example of hodoku, or compassion, as shown by the founder of the ryu.

Whenever I hear people’s petty arguments that Japanese terminology in the dojo should be replaced with English or another language, I think of terms like hodoku. I wonder what non-Japanese equivalent they would use because the concept and its application would require pages of explanation to describe adequately.

Classical martial arts kata — nearly always an exchange between two participants and not the solo sequences with which most karateka are familiar — teach a variety of combative strategies. Some are long and complex, while others involve only a single attack and counter. No matter their length, once the forms are finished, both participants are left in potentially mortal situations. For example, your weapon is pointed directly at my throat, and mine is set to break your wrist. How do we resolve the standoff? We turn to an unlikely source: the terminology of Buddhism.

In Buddhism, the word ko is defined as being one moment longer than the longest stretch of time any human can comprehend. Perhaps our standoff wouldn’t last that long; but in our positions and our attitude, we must be in a technical state of ko. I’m willing to try to keep my advantage, just as you’re willing to try to keep yours.

In the dojo, the combative ko is broken when one participant voluntarily moves his weapon into a nonthreatening posture. Even though he may still be in position to continue fighting, he shows a willingness to promote charity to his partner. (Of course, he would not do this if the situation were real. In that case, ko is broken when one participant stops breathing.) This attitude of compassion is hodoku.

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In shindo muso ryu, one trainee is armed with a stick, and the other wields a bokken, or wooden practice sword. At the conclusion of the kata, the swordsman slowly moves his weapon slightly off to his side, lowering it. This posture is called hodoku kamae. Slowly and carefully and without losing his concentration, the person with the stick slides his weapon back to his side, responding in an equally humane way to the swordsman’s charity. Both partners then retreat to take up positions to begin practicing the next kata.

On one level, the process of hodoku is purely mechanical. The swordsman’s lowering of his blade is a way to bring the kata to a technically safe conclusion. Even though the forms are precisely ritualized, they expose both practitioners to extreme danger. Weapons are swung with full force and stopped only at the last second, a fraction of an inch from a …

Haruo Matsuoka on Steven Seagal and Aikido’s History in America

Haruo Matsuoka on Steven Seagal and Aikido’s History in America

Haruo Matsuoka throws an opponent while Steven Seagal (far right) looks on.


Haruo Matsuoka is a study in contrasts. Although he speaks with a noticeable Japanese accent, he’s eloquent in his English explanation of the esoteric concepts of aikido. While he’s known as one of the most combat-competent aikido stylists on the planet and was one of the very few who could take falls for Steven Seagal as he executed his vicious aikido throws, he remains disarmingly humble and glows with a happiness that only true stability, contentment and harmony can bring.

Conversations with Haruo Matsuoka lead in a variety of directions, all of which are enlightening and inspiring yet grounded in reality. Perhaps what is most amazing is how his life has mirrored his art, meeting conflict and strife with patience and integrity.

When I recently arrived at his dojo in search of answers, he met me at the door as if greeting an old friend, then sat on the tatami mats for the duration of the interview. It was as if there was no distinction in rank, yet there was no lack of etiquette.

The History of Aikido

Born in Osaka, Japan, in the late 1950s, Haruo Matsuoka received an early introduction to aikido and the customs most closely associated with it. His father, Shiro Matsuoka, was into macrobiotics — a diet that’s popular among aikido practitioners in Japan. One year, he took young Haruo Matsuoka to a summer camp dedicated to promoting macrobiotics, and that was where the youth witnessed his first aikido demonstration.


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Later, during his high-school years, he participated in judo, which was a standard part of the physical education curriculum.

Just before his 16th birthday, Haruo Matsuoka began taking classes under an instructor named Kobayashi. But the man disappeared after a short time, leaving the dojo unmanaged and unattended. Six months later, Steven Seagal moved to Osaka and reopened the facility as his now-famous Tenshin Dojo.

At 17, Haruo Matsuoka had his first meeting with Steven Seagal, and it left a lasting impression on the youth. Reminiscing about that day, he beamed with a sense of wonder: “When I first met Seagal sensei, his Japanese wasn’t so fluent, but his technique was remarkable — unlike what I’d seen before. He was so fast, very fluid. Seeing him doing aikido changed my life.”

Haruo Matsuoka signed up on the spot.

“Nothing in my earlier martial arts experiences came close to that moment,” he said. Steven Seagal’s school sat in a rough part of town known for its yakuza gangsters and prostitutes. “It was only a five-minute walk to the dojo from the train station, but it seemed like a long, long walk,” Haruo Matsuoka recalled. “There were many times when I was really scared, as a skinny kid, and walked as fast as possible so I could avoid getting into trouble.”

Initially, Haruo Matsuoka trained three times a week, attending classes that were tough and strict. Steven Seagal’s aikido had a reputation for being hard core and effective even on the street. And his training philosophy backed that up: Make everything practical for this world — otherwise, it’s useless. “Seagal taught a very practical aikido — swift footsteps, hand movements like sword cuts and a body posture that was very straight, very strong,” Matsuoka said.

Steven Seagal emphasized the relationship between kenjutsu sword work and aikido, and Haruo Matsuoka began to understand the ways in which hand, foot and body positioning in a sword fight translate to aikido. He could see how those skills enabled the practitioner to smoothly glide out of harm’s way while thoroughly exploiting the other person’s openings.

“Seagal sensei was my first real master,” Haruo Matsuoka said. The American took a personal interest in his new pupil’s aikido development almost from the get-go, frequently inquiring about his plans after high school. Before Matsuoka had the opportunity to test for his black belt, Steven Seagal pulled him aside and asked if he wanted to accompany him to America to help him make movies. To the impressionable Japanese teenager, it seemed like the opportunity of a lifetime, inspiring him to persevere in his practice.

Haruo Matsuoka’s relationship with his master would never be the same.

Steven Seagal began using him as his uke, demonstrating throws and other aikido techniques on him during class despite his rank. (According to Japanese etiquette, the head instructor demonstrates techniques only on the most senior student, allowing him to learn quickly by feeling each move.) Steven Seagal put him ahead of his seniors and gave him the opportunity to absorb knowledge directly from the source and …

Ninja History 101: Ninjutsu Training

Ninja History 101: Ninjutsu Training

It’s a testimonial to the ninja that Japan’s 1964 Olympic team seriously considered using a number of ninjutsu training methods.

Masaaki Hatsumi, one of Japan’s few remaining ninja practitioners, describes the ninja of old as the perfect all-around athletes of their day — expert in running, jumping, swimming, climbing walls, long-distance hiking, throwing, etc.

Of course, the ninja excelled in all the martial arts of their day, such as kendo, kyudo and naginata-do. They were also skilled in hand-to-hand combat, using wrestling and boxing techniques that were the forerunners of judo and karate.

If a child were born into a ninja family, his ninjutsu training would begin during childhood. The art was handed down from father to son as a trade, and a number of great ninja clans arose. The secrets of those clans were closely guarded. The members of one clan would often be in hire of one lord and thus pitted against warriors in the employ of another lord. At such times, it always paid off to have a few secrets in one’s bag of tricks that were not generally known to others.


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The ninja underwent rigid training to learn ninjutsu techniques at secret camps, usually set up in the mountains. The schools were scattered throughout central Japan, with most situated in Iga and Koga provinces. Daily ninjutsu training focused on becoming adept in the use of the sword, bow and arrow, spear and tonki. Close attention was also paid to wall climbing, river crossing and the use of special devices. They also learned how to become expert horsemen.

Physical Ninjutsu Training

The late Seiko Fujita, who claimed to be the 14th master of the Koga school of ninjutsu, said ninja could walk the 350 miles between Edo (now Tokyo) and Osaka in three days. To improve his walking speed and skill, a ninja practiced by leaning his body forward or to one side so he was forced to walk rapidly to maintain balance.

Ninjutsu training also included walking with geta (wooden sandals) on ice to achieve perfect waist balance and silent treading. A ninja’s sandals were specially cushioned with cotton cloth so he could walk and jump noiselessly. When walking around the side of a structure, a ninja pressed his back to the wall and stepped sideways to prevent detection.

Related Martial Arts Books, E-Books,
DVDs and Video Downloads

Related Books, E-Books, DVDs and Video Downloads

Advanced Samurai Swordsmanship

Ninja: The Invisible Assassins

The Complete Ninja Collection by Stephen K. Hayes


The ninja were also great second-story men. They were extremely adept at breaking into enemy castles and spent long hours practicing wall climbing. They also stressed leaping to be able to jump across rooftops and to avoid their enemies by hopping across chasms, over walls and fences, etc. Seiko Fujita claimed that ninja became such experts at leaping that many of them could jump more than 7 feet into the air — which would make them champion high jumpers even today.

Mental Ninjutsu Training

Ninja put just as much stress on the spiritual and mental aspects of ninjutsu training as they did on purely physical action. They had to have their wits about them at all times and work out complicated problems on the spot. They learned to sharpen their perception and insight, developing their instincts to a point that seemed almost superhuman.

Heishichiro Okuse — perhaps the foremost authority on ninjutsu and the author of four books — wrote his last work on the subject, Hidden Ninjutsu: The Secret Thoughts and Strategies of the Ninja. According to him, they regarded nothing as impossible and scientifically applied brain power to every problem they encountered. He regards the nonphysical aspects of ninjutsu as the key to a successful career.

One of the most interesting aspects of ninjutsu is kuji-kiri, or magical signs made with the fingers to assist them in self-control during moments of danger. Kuji, or the number nine, is said to be the most important number in Kikkyo (esoteric Buddhism) and Shugendo (mountain asceticism). In practicing kuji-kiri, there were 81 different ways the ninja could knit his fingers together. At the same time, he chanted Buddhist sutras, or maxims from the scriptures.

The practice not only restored confidence and gave the ninja inner strength in moments of danger and desperation, but it was also supposed to hypnotize the enemy into inaction or temporary paralysis. It was something like the evil eye or the casting of a hex.

Learn more in these posts:

Part One: Ninja History 101: An Introduction to Ninjutsu

Part Two: Ninja History 101: Spying and Assassination

Part Three: Ninja History 101: Ninja Gear

Part Four: Ninja History 101: Ninjutsu Weapons

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